Josip Broz Tito was a towering figure in Yugoslav politics for more than 30 years and even after his death his legacy is still felt in each of the former Yugoslav republics. He is largely credited, and rightfully so, for keeping Yugoslavia together for so long, for better or for worse. Tito is also famous for his policy of non-alignment during the Cold War.
Tito, who is of mixed Croatian and Slovenian descent, emerged from World War II in a unique position. While the Soviet Red Army had been responsible for driving the Germans out of much of eastern and central Europe, Tito and his Partisans drove out the Germans almost single handedly since Tito had agreed with Stalin that the Red Army would not enter Yugoslavia. This is significant because Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had virtually no influence in Yugoslavia since his Red Army was not there and because Tito had made a name for himself independent of Stalin, whereas other communist leaders such as Walter Ulbrecht in East Germany were essentially Stalinist puppets. So while other eastern European states were dealing with the occupation of the Soviet Red Army and the slow coming of socialism, Tito was almost solely in control of Yugoslavia, free to seek the course that he wished.
The communist take-over was relatively easy as King Petar ceded all of his powers to a three-member regency in 1944 who promptly handed power to Tito who became the leader of a provisional Yugoslav government as prime minister and war minister. Soon after, a Constituent Assembly (that had been boycotted by Serb and Croat political parties) dissolved the monarchy and officially declared the foundation of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia. The new constitution called for six constituent republics under a single centralized government in Belgrade. Wary of Serbian domination and the backlash that it might cause, Montenegro and Macedonia were created as separate republics and Kosovo and Vojvodina were made into autonomous regions within the Serbian Socialist Republic. The new government began to punish wartime collaborators, summarily executing thousands of guilty and innocent prisoners, including Cetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic and over 200 priests and nuns charged with participating in the Ustase-led slaughter.
The new government began to pursue a vigorous socialist program of reforms and maintained close ties with the USSR and Cominform until 1948 when a split occurred between Yugoslavia and the USSR, which eventually led to Yugoslavia's nonalignment. Tito began to pursue an independent course in foreign policy, partly by not supporting the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. "Titoism," as Yugoslav communism was referred to, included the eventual abandonment of agricultural collectivization, workers councils, and the centralization of economic and administrative controls. Generally Yugoslavs under Tito's rule possessed more freedoms and liberties than most others living in communist regimes. Yugoslavs could work or travel freely in the west, standards of living were considerably higher than most other socialist states, and Tito had seemingly been able to solve the troublesome nationalism problem. However situation was not as ideal as it may have always seemed. The federalism question continued to simmer beneath the surface, especially in Croatia and Kosovo. There were violent demonstrations among the Kosovar Albanians in 1968 as Albanians demanded republican status for Kosovo. The government eventually gave some concessions to Kosovo, short of proclaiming it a republic. In 1971 the constitution was transformed, allowing for a looser federation that limited the federal government to defense, foreign affairs, fiscal and monetary policy, and ethnic and civil rights. The republics meanwhile took primary control over other functions, and now held a veto over decisions made by the federal government.
A similar crisis occurred in Croatia in the early 1970s. Many students and intellectuals began to protest what they called the repression of Croatian nationalism at Serb hands. In 1971 university students went on strike in Zagreb despite Tito's attempts to get local leaders to quiet them. Tito finally lost his patience and ordered hundreds of them to be arrested and began a purge of "nationalists" and reformers from the Croat republic. The situation in Croatia prompted Tito to begin a country-wide purge of liberals and reformers, replacing them with anti-reform veterans who were more loyal to Tito. Tito also began to harass dissenters, restricted the press, named himself president-for-life, and worked to increase his cult of personality across Yugoslavia. Another constitution was passed in 1974 that gave Yugoslavia's central leadership greater control over the legislative branch while retaining the decentralizing provisions of the 1971 constitution.
Tito died on May 4, 1980. While a collective presidency assumed power without incident, there was a growing sense of apprehension in Yugoslavia. There was no question that Tito had held Yugoslavia together almost by sheer force of will and political cunning, regardless of whether or not that was a positive thing. Now that Tito was gone, it remained to be seen if the country could still be held together.
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